Like all humans, Americans like to think of themselves as a peace-loving nation: the good guys on the side of freedom and justice. And don’t get me wrong – this country has done a lot of wonderful things for humanity; it’s rhetoric and highest ideals are certainly what other nations aspire to. But despite its ideals, America is also one of the most militarily bristling, savage purveyors of death in history. This is something to bear in mind when listening to the pundits and politicians urging Obama to stop “exhibiting weakness” on Crimea, and start leading from the front in a more forceful manner.
Perhaps you disagree that America is a savage, violent country. Well let’s examine how many people have died violent deaths at the hands of Americans.
Start with annual deaths from firearms in America, of which there are now roughly as many guns as there are people, even if the amount of households with guns in them is declining. Approximately 31,000 people every year die from firearms in America, with the annual rise eerily in tandem with the easing of gun ownership laws.
Then there’s the African American slave trade. The most conservative estimate for those killed in the trans-Atlantic slave trade starts at six million; however, the likeliest number of deaths falls somewhere between 15 to 20 million (the high end would be 60 million). Hitler of course, one of history’s greatest monsters, killed 6 million Jews. It’s not a comfortable comparison to think about.
Now let’s examine America’s wars. In all its existence America has only fought two defensive wars that actually threatened its sovereignty. The first was the Revolutionary War of Independence from Britain, in which 8,000 Americans died in battle, (and 17,000 from disease) with about 1,240 British killed in battle (about 18,500 from disease), 1,200 Germans killed, (and over 6,000 killed by disease or accident).
The second was the War of 1812, also with Great Britain, which, among other things, prevented the U.S. from annexing Canada from the British Empire. Roughly 20,000 Americans died. Incredibly, somehow Canada managed to throw off the yoke of British oppression without a shot being fired, although it did take a little longer.
Then there’s America’s Civil War, in which somewhere over 200,000 American soldiers died in combat, with another 400,000+ dying from disease, along with somewhere between 50,000 and 75,000 civilians killed.
In fact, if you add up American military deaths alone over two centuries of its history, the number is somewhere around 1.3 million. You can add in another 500,000 Iraqi civilian deaths to that tally, and I can’t even imagine how many more civilian deaths you’d get up to if you included the Korean War, Vietnam War, Afghanistan War, the Philippine-American War, the Spanish-American War, the Mexican-American War, The War of 1812, World War I and II (a special mention for the 150,000-246,000 Japanese civilians slaughtered at Hiroshima and Nagasaki alone) or all the rest of America’s combat adventures.
And finally, let’s not forget the the untold numbers of military personnel – and civilians – killed around the world every year thanks to U.S. sales of small arms, mines, tanks, missiles, aircraft, and every other weapon modern industry can conceive of – such as the biological weapons Donald Rumsfeld and the Reagan administration sold to Saddam Hussein in the 80’s, which he then used to massacre Iraqi Kurds with. Now despite not facing a single remotely credible threat of invasion since the Cold War ended (America enjoys allies to its north and south, with vast oceans protecting its east and west flanks), the U.S. spends more on its military than the next thirteen countries combined – all bar one of which are ostensibly our allies – and remains the world’s largest arms exporter.
I don’t think it’s improbable that being one the world’s greatest purveyors of death is having a substantially toxic effect on America, not just in lives lost, maimed, and ruined in America and around the globe, but also in the political functioning of the Republic. The Republican President and former five-star general Dwight Eisenhower famously warned of the dangers of the military-industrial complex at the end of his term in 1961. Yet the world he warned against seems to uncannily match the very world we live in today.
There remains a loud rump of the American electorate to whom possessing the world’s greatest military means every problem or conflict must have a military solution. They are forcefully represented in public debate by the likes of Arizona Senator John McCain, but there are plenty of neocons and chickenhawks in both parties for whom military adventurism is a first, rather than a last resort. It’s hard to overstate the American cultural fetishization of guns and military force.
But we are now living through “the disastrous rise of misplaced power” accumulated by the various defense bureaucracies Eisenhower specifically warned against (the CIA and NSA leap to mind). We have “let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties [and] democratic processes.” We have “taken these developments for granted”. And if “only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together,” well, we have failed in being alert and knowledgeable too.
“Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence,” Ike pleaded, “is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.”
America has a military that’s “the best in world at breaking things and fucking shit up,” as a vet friend of mine put it. But the anomalous cases of Germany and Japan aside, America hasn’t shown the same skill in “nation building.” Any time you go to war, both sides lose, because people – and invariably innocent people – die. If we could stop constantly trying to rush to war with anyone who isn’t actually directly threatening America’s citizens or territory, America, and the world, would benefit mightily.